Two prison officers assaulted at Vaughn Correctional Center

DOVER — Correctional officers’ union leaders on Wednesday reported that two officers were assaulted by an inmate at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna the day before.

The union leadership described inmates and their mental health professionals as now “controlling” prison facilities due to an earlier agreement between state officials and civil liberties advocates.

The agreement, they indicated, makes it harder for officers to maintain order at the correctional facility.

The comments drew a swift rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Delaware and Community Legal Aid Society Inc. (CLASI).

They maintain that prison reforms had addressed security concerns — chronic under-staffing and over-incarceration in the prison system, while acknowledging mental illness issues among inmates.

Last week at the Vaughn center, correctional officer Lt. Steven R. Floyd, 47, was killed. His death came during a 19-hour standoff involving 120 prisoners and several prison staff members taken hostage on Wednesday morning.

The siege ended when law enforcement stormed Building C at 5 a.m. on Thursday and secured the premises.

This week, one of the two correctional officers allegedly attacked on Tuesday by an inmate suffered lacerations to his nose and forehead, and bruising around one of his eyes, the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) stated in a news release. The other officer was not injured.

According to the union, the latest incident at approximately 9:30 a.m. involved inmates allegedly yelling and threatening staff members during morning showers.

The news release characterized one inmate as unruly and “reportedly shouting again and again that he was going to kill all the officers.”

After being ordered into his cell, according to the union, the inmate threw his belongings into the cell and said, “I’m taking one of you with me.”

According to the union, the inmate then “braced against the door to prevent from being secured.”

The inmate allegedly punched one of the officers in the face and “actively assaulted two officers during the attack.”

The confrontation continued until more staff arrived and the inmate was secured and taken from the area, officials said.

The parties respond

COAD president Geoff Klopp referenced a 17-page agreement signed by then Department of Correction Commissioner Robert M. Coupe and approved by Attorney General Matt Denn on Aug. 31, 2016, which “in effect … turned control of the facilities over to the inmates and their mental health advocates.”

The ACLU of Delaware and CLASI had filed a lawsuit alleging 100 or more mentally ill prisoners were placed in solitary confinement settings that worsened symptoms such as paranoia, self-mutilation and suicide attempts.

CLASI and the ACLU released a joint, saying the settlement was designed to have the DOC meet standards established by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Correctional Association regarding confinement and treatment of mentally ill inmates.

“Commitments to increased staffing and expanded prison facilities to provide better mental health programming for maximum security inmates were included in the agreement,” the ACLU and CLASI stated.

Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, lauded the DOC for establishing best practices regarding prison security and the mentally ill. She took issue with COAD contentions.

“We understand that the hostage crisis and the death of Sgt. Floyd has been a traumatic experience for everyone associated with the DDOC,” Ms. MacRae said.

“But the fact that the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware is making false claims about the terms of the agreement to attack DDOC, former-Commissioner Robert Coupe and Attorney General Matt Denn is troubling to say the least.

“As a result of mass incarceration policies, overcrowding and chronic understaffing have been known problems within the prison system for decades.
“It is utterly untrue and irresponsible for COAD to say that the settlement agreement turned control of our prison facilities over to inmates.”

Daniel Atkins, CLASI executive director, commented “safe, humane, and well-staffed prisons that provide treatment and opportunities for rehabilitation are in everybody’s interests.

“The settlement agreement charted a path towards a much improved Delaware prison system that ultimately will enhance the safety of inmates, the people who work with them, and the public.”

Attempts to reach Mr. Klopp for further comment were unsuccessful.

DOC, AG comments

DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps responded to the allegations with a statement. He noted that Gov. John Carney has ordered an independent investigation surrounding prison matters.

“All individuals, whether mentally ill or severely mentally ill, are held accountable for their actions within acceptable medical guidelines,” he said.

“The individual accused of assaulting an officer at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center on Feb. 7 was not on the mental health roster. In fact, he had not been seen or requested services from our medical contractor since November of 2015 when he was processed in to the facility.

“There is no evidence to validate the claims that mental health staff interfered and instructed the offenders not to comply with DOC officials.

“We’re confident Gov. Carney’s independent investigation will identify any areas of concern with policies or procedures surrounding security operations and mental health relationships.”

Through spokesman Carl Kanefsky, the AG’s office released a statement after a request for comment on the union’s claims:

“Department of Justice attorneys provided legal representation to the Department of Correction in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Community Legal Aid, as DOJ does by statute in virtually all lawsuits filed against state agencies.

“The lawsuit was settled in mediation between the Department of Correction and the plaintiffs.”

As a result of the agreement, the ACLU and CLASI believed that overall mental health care for inmates improved, confinement conditions were liberalized, and stays in solitary confinement for disciplinary measures were reduced.

Mr. Klopp believes that the settlement “places mental health workers between the inmates and the Officers, usually to the detriment of the Officer.
“Repeated incidents where an Officer directs an inmate to do something only to have mental health advocates instruct the inmate not to comply occur all too often.

“This agreement is another huge factor in the lack of control within our facilities. Commissioner Coupe and Attorney General Denn hamstrung the Correctional Officers from maintaining order in the facilities and protecting themselves.

“As long as this agreement is in place, inmates will continue to disrespect and assault — or worse — our officers.

“This has to stop!”

The union also maintains that less space is now available for more dangerous inmates due to the agreement. It also limits “the sanctions that can be imposed when an inmate is non-compliant with reasonable Officer instructions or housing area rules.”

Attempts to reach Mr. Coupe, now Delaware Division of Safety and Homeland Security secretary, for comment were unsuccessful. A DSHS spokeswoman referred all prison-related matters to the DOC.

Spokeswoman Wendy Hudson referenced Gov. Carney’s ordered review which, “will explore the immediate and underlying causes of the hostage inclident at JTVCC and the reviewer will develop a series of actionable recommentations to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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